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VOL. 42 | NO. 36 | Friday, September 7, 2018

No congregation too small for reformed drug lord

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The Rev. Ricky Waller, a former Nashville high school basketball star turned drug dealer, now uses his roundball skills to entice young residents of the Preston Taylor Homes to a better path.

-- Tim Ghianni | The Ledger

Fat Ricky – among the street monikers of the preacher who’s devoting the second half of his life to making up for the drug-selling damage he did in the first half – spins the basketball on his left index finger, eyes on the bucket and takes a long step or two across an urban ballcourt, one of his many “pulpits” in West Nashville.

Long-striding beneath the net – ball still spinning – Minister Ricky Waller leaps across the key to make a reverse layup, much to the delight of a little girl, who laughs in obvious disbelief.

“All I needed was for you to tell me I couldn’t do it,” he says, softly, while the dazzled child’s laugh fades off on the video he’s playing for me as we sit in his sanctuary, three rows of five chairs stretching from wall-to-wall in the gray house on Indiana Avenue.

“If a sanctuary has 2,000 seats but God’s not in there, it’s just a lot of noise,” he says, adding that God occupies his cramped sanctuary, and he’ll put the same energy into his preaching if he has just one show up – “even if it’s just you” – or if all 15 seats are filled.

And if more arrive for 3 p.m. Sunday worship, “we’ll squeeze them in.” For those unsure of how or whether to pray, he wires his pulpit microphone to two portable loudspeakers on the front porch, facing the street, sending his sermon into the West Nashville afternoon.

“I want to reach everyone who wants to hear it, whether in here or out there,” he says, motioning with his head toward Indiana Avenue.

He’ll pretty much hold worship at any time people want it, either in this house, from a tent out on the street-corner, in some lonesome alley or through the Bible study at which he reclaimed his reputation and developed his ministry, trying to make up for years of running with the devil through his life’s neighborhood.

“I started out going to Bible studies around here,” he says, recalling his transition from drug lord to spokesman for The Lord that began in 1997 when he stopped peddling death to preach of life, hope and hereafter.

Sending the Gospel into the streets really is what he’s been doing most of his preaching career. It’s only in the last six months or so that he has had this “permanent” structure, his New Way Outreach Ministry HQ.

For the last 20-plus years, he has toted the Bible and a basketball while traveling the often mean streets in and around Preston Taylor Homes, where he was raised among the drug dealers whose lifestyle lured him into the trade in his early teens and well into a flashy-clothed, fancy-car early adulthood.

“I didn’t buy a lot of cars, but if I needed something, I just bought it,” says the man who regrets his material world success was achieved by being the heroin the kingpin in West Nashville. “That was just in my era. There were guys (drug magnates) before me and there have been more since,” he says, voice dosed with melancholy.

That “Super Fly” lifestyle fed off the fact he already was something of a star in the neighborhood. He used the adulation he earned as a Cohn High School basketball star to raise his platform in the drug world.

“According to what people say, I was a real good basketball player. I could play so many positions. … I could shoot, pass the ball. I could play defense.”

Fat Ricky, as his teammates and the drug-buyers called him, had hopes to get a basketball scholarship to nearby TSU – “I was going to go there and nowhere else,” he says – but he didn’t get an offer.

He shrugged it off. “I already was in the streets and bound by the street life. My heart wasn’t into going to college.”

That Ricky entered that life at an age when he was most impressionable is one of the reasons he strives to be visible now, offering, humbly, his reclaimed life as an alternative, using the Gospel and often a spinning basketball in efforts to counter the lures to which he succumbed.

“The street life was presented to me when I was a kid by watching. I’m sitting out on the porch as a young boy. I used to watch guys who were standing out there, and they looked like they were enjoying life. I was around 10 or 11, and it sort of burst into my existence.

“That’s what I bring to the table, teaching people of an early age not to be vulnerable. They are seeing things in front of them, they could become what they see.

“I know that in my experience, it captured me, and I was unable to break free. What I saw others do was much stronger than what I should have been doing as a kid. That’s why we need better examples in our community that the kids can see.”

His own drug use – “I began smoking marijuana” – started shortly after he became enamored of the guys on the street.

Then he began using heroin. “I became addicted. I snorted it because I was encouraged not to shoot drugs.”

He says a cousin – for whom he tightened a sock around his arm to expose the vein destined for the needle – “would say to me ‘don’t you ever do this….’

“I knew he meant it. He knew he was captured. He knew he wanted to be free from it. He tried to be free from it, but he said he was going to use drugs the rest of his life.”

Ricky never did use the needle, but he loved snorting heroin more than using any other drugs, and “I had mentioned to myself that I was going to use drugs the rest of my life.”

He worked his way up from the street corner to become the West Nashville kingpin, distributing death to a corps of street dealers, while always trying – sometimes unsuccessfully – to dodge police.

“I accumulated a lot of money in the kingdom of darkness, and I did a lot of harm to everybody.

“I can’t put a dollar value on the hurt and the pain. Money put that kind of stain on my brain that caused me to affect so many people.”

He was one of his own casualties. His 20-year heroin addiction even continued past 1990, when, following up on a long-ago invitation by Pastor James Cooke, he finally entered Immanuel Missionary Baptist Church on 43rd Avenue North one Sunday.

“I got hooked on the first day I went in there. It was interesting. The man was speaking power, something I didn’t have. He said ‘God is able,’ and that struck me, because if God was able, I wondered if he could do something for me? I kept showing up. But I didn’t leave the street life…. I’d do drugs in church.

“Then I had a little talk with the Lord. The Lord spoke to me and said to me that I was in the right place. …. I continued to show up. I continued to sniff heroin.”

Heroin sniffing in church, in his car and at home ended on January 31, 1992, after one of his many arrests landed him in drug treatment, where he ended his addiction but didn’t cleanse his soul.

“I had peace that money couldn’t buy, but I was still in the street. God had proved to me the power that I had, but I still was selling drugs. I found out I was saddened by it. But I was addicted to the lifestyle.”

He continued selling drugs until 1997, shortly after his third child from different mothers, daughter Taylor, now 22, was turned over to him by her mom.

“She (the mother) came to me when Taylor was 3 months and said I could do better by her than she could, and she left town.

“That was my motivator. I had to bring this child up. I didn’t have a motivator to do it while in prison.”

He began his ministry the next year, using his neighborhood celebrity as a platform from which to push hope, not dope.

“God gave me a hand. God was revealing himself to me. I had to go do something about what I’d done. That’s how I made the decision. I was taught by the one who created the heaven and the earth.

“I started out going to Bible studies around here,” he recounts. His knowledge and enthusiasm were infectious and “people encouraged me to begin a ministry. And God told me to teach people how he taught me.”

Since that time, he’s held those tent revivals and preached from street corners. He’s met with the troubled one-on-one. He has crawled into the darkest corners of West Nashville at 3 or 4 a.m. if there’s a chance he can reach someone, teach them to follow God. Or to at least reassure them hope exists. Then he smiles. “I always have a basketball with me. I always have.”

It is one of his New Way Outreach Ministry tools. During his travels through the neighborhood, if he sees young people gathered near a hardcourt, he’ll stop and grab his Wilson from the trunk and join them. There, he’ll dazzle with basketball tricks that he hopes shows being good can be cool. The ball tricks also break down barriers with hardened urban youth to whom heaven is a playground.

He’s proud to mention there is one – a red-white-and-blue ball signed by his hero Meadowlark Lemon, that was presented to him when he was honored at a Black History banquet celebrating his work.

The man who handed him the ball was Charles Watkins, his childhood coach at Preston Taylor Community Center.

“He taught me all the fundamentals of the game,” says Ricky, tears rolling down his face. “I’m sure I disappointed him… I could have played in college, been a Globetrotter, maybe the NBA.” He chose to excel in the drug business instead.

He still has doubters. Some people think that once a street hustler, always a street hustler. Ricky says he understands those who think that way (“I would too, probably”). All he asks is a chance to prove them wrong.

Some on the streets still call the preacher “Fat Ricky,” the nickname he earned as a husky neighborhood child. Later people called him that because his pockets always were fat with cash from drug deals.

Or they call him “Trick Rick,” a nickname he earned for his ballplaying legerdemain at Cohn High. As a drug kingpin, he had a “Trick Rick” plate on the front of his car.

“I was the artery for all the heroin in West Nashville,” says the pastor who is dedicated to helping the lost – like he was – and tending his flock.

Ricky, whose ministry operates from this non-descript house at 4010 Indiana Avenue, planted next to a broken-bottle-decorated vacant lot on the corner of 40th Avenue North, welcomes the opportunity to prove his doubters wrong.

“I hurt this whole neighborhood, the whole city,” this 61-year-old says. “I hurt a lot of people.”

On this 100-degree day, the window air-conditioner struggles to keep the tiny sanctuary cool enough to be bearable. “I wanted you to be comfortable, so I turned it on last night and left it running,” he adds, settling back into one of the congregation’s chairs.

“They rock a little, but they’re supposed to,” he says, reassuring me I’m not about to rock backward and slam my long, white hair and accompanying skull into the floor.

It’s simple illustration that this pastor of the poor and hurting – some of whom were damaged by him or those who followed him into the drug trade – is always looking out for others.

Ricky pulls out a computer tablet and offers up more footage of himself spinning the ball, palming it, letting it roll across his arm to his shoulders, some of it while children and teenagers watch in disbelief.

“I used to wear nice suits, have all kind of money,” he says as he rocks a bit in his chair. On this hot day, he’s wearing a golf shirt and jeans and seeking financial help for his ministry.

“I just came from a funeral, but this time I didn’t have to speak, so I wore comfortable clothes,” he says, tapping his well-shined half-boots against the floor.

Working to rescue souls by simple means – like hollering “You got it, man” friendly banter with some young guys sprawled in the yard across the street early on this school-day afternoon – is a first step.

Getting them to come visit the ministry one day will be another step. Perhaps they will, as he did, stay.

“I’ve been called” to keep this ministry going, Ricky adds, even if he has to reach into his pockets to supplement grant money raised by ministry board member Rene Joseph.

“He needed a grant writer. He was doing some outreach to the youth, and he wanted to take it to another level,” Joseph explains. “He needs the support of the people. It’s something people should contribute to and undergird him, because he needs their support, and it’s worth supporting.”

Joseph learned about Ricky’s ministry, investigated it and decided it was more than worth her time.

“I think what’s really important is the humility he has,” she says. “He has a genuine desire to make a difference, to catch (young people) while they are raw and impressionable. Catch them while the temptations of the street are right in their faces. He can speak to them, a message that crosses racial lines.”

Still, he absorbs the costs when necessary. “I’ve learned to do without,” is his simple explanation, adding that he gathers money for the ministry by speaking at funerals and performing other such ministerial tasks.

Another of his ardent followers and members of the New Way board is treasurer Regina Brazil Brown, a West Nashville native now living in Augusta, Georgia.

“That’s my pastor. That’s my man of God,” she says. “He has been the true spiritual, Godly leader in my life since 2002. That’s who I tithe with.”

Her brother, Charles Harris, tried long and hard to convince friend and former schoolmate Fat Ricky to leave the streets years before he did. When he learned of young Ricky’s revival, Harris excitedly visited Bert’s men’s store, where his old pal worked, to congratulate and encourage him.

“It was really inspirational,” Ricky remembers.

When Charles died, Regina and another brother – she bought a funeral suit for him from Ricky at the store – encountered the former drug lord at the funeral. A deep bond developed, and when she got home, “I just remember waking up in the middle of the night, and the Lord told me to pour into the ministry financially.

“My whole love for the ministry is the pastor stays in the street. He’s not hidden behind four walls on Sunday. He knows the work he did for the enemy was out in the street.

“Now he is out in the street to combat the horrors that are out there…. (He) is walking, talking testimony. God can change it all. He’s in touch with the will of God.”

Anyone interested in finding out more can check out http://newwayoutreachministry.yolasite.com and/or read his scriptures-laced autobiography, “Still High,” chronicling his trips to hell and redemption. Ricky’s contact information for autographed copies of the book are on the site.

“People have said I should leave Nashville,” he points out. “But I’m not going anywhere. I hurt too many people around here. I’ve got too much work to do.

“You can call me Fat Ricky. You can call me pastor. You can call me Trick Rick. But what I really want to be called is Minister Ricky.”

As our second afternoon together ends, he takes the Wilson ball into the front yard and begins spinning it.

The young guys in the yard across the street happily holler support. Two cars stop to watch the pastor work the ball.

“You still spinning, Ricky?” asks a guy in one of them. “That’s all right, man.”

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